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Illini hang on, Gonzaga next

(MCT) — CHAMPAIGN — There was only one blowout Tuesday night at the Assembly Hall and it wasn’t No. 13 Illinois’ 72-64 victory over Western Carolina.

While trying to encourage his team, Illini coach John Groce blew out the seat of his pants while demonstrating a defensive stance and said the incident taught him a valuable lesson.

“I learned that I need to wear dark underwear,” Groce said after Illinois improved to 9-0.

Afterward Groce laughed at the costume malfunction and said his dark suit was headed for the scrap pile. “Probably not salvageable,” Groce said.

Groce was not particularly happy with the way his unbeaten team played, but he was already turning his focus to what should be one of the weekend’s marquee matchups in college basketball when Illinois heads to Spokane, Wash., for a collision with unbeaten and 10th-ranked Gonzaga.

“I’ll be honest, I haven’t watched anything on them, but our staff has and I’ll meet with them late tonight,” Groce said.

“I’ve been told (Gonzaga coach Mark Few) thinks it’s his best team. It’s a great environment in there, but our guys will be up for the challenge.

“It’s an exciting challenge, a nationally televised game against a top 10 team. They’ll be excited to play us because we beat them here last year.”

Illinois defeated Gonzaga 82-75 at the Assembly Hall last December and Groce said his entire team knows Tuesday night’s performance was far from what will be needed Saturday.

“I thought Western Carolina was the tougher team for the bulk of the game and that was disappointing,” Groce said. “They were terrific on the backboard. We didn’t do enough things well.

“But we made a few plays down the stretch and I’ll give our guys credit for that.”

Western Carolina hung around and found a formula for success by continually driving the ball to the basket in the second half.

“In the second half, we created dribble penetration and got to the foul line,” Western Carolina coach Larry Hunter said. “We had some opportunities. But them forcing us into turnovers was key. And some guys stepped up for them and hit some big shots at a crucial part of the game.”

Illinois’ defense made 12 steals and forced 22 turnovers, but the Illini lead was just 56-54 when D.J. Richardson made the first of those crucial plays.

Richardson hit consecutive 3-pointers and opened a 62-56 lead with 4:05 to go. Then a steal by Tyler Griffey led to a fast break and Tracy Abrams was fouled while driving hard to the basket. Abrams hit a pair of free throws to make it 64-56 and after Sam McLaurin stole a pass into the post, Abrams converted a fallaway jumper on the other end for a 66-56 lead with 2:22 to play.

Brandon Paul led Illinois with 14 points. Richardson scored 10 of his 13 in the second half and Abrams finished with 10.

But Western Carolina (3-6) outrebounded Illinois 41-34 and Richardson knows a better effort will be needed at Gonzaga.

“We have to play 40 minutes,” the senior guard said. “We have spurts where we play good, but we have to be tough. We have to do a better job of throwing a haymaker the whole game.”

Groce said he expects Illinois to be ready.

“We learn and move,” Groce said. “We learn from the good and tough times, then we move on. That’s what we’ll do with this one.

“We’ll move in a direction to make sure we’re ready for Saturday’s game.”

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